Life in the Ripper’s London

I wrote this blog post close to Halloween, a good time for something scary. Although I like the cute horror of Halloween and a good, over-the-top zombie film, lately I’ve been chasing after some true-life horror as I research the lives of murder victims for my Jack the Ripper Victims Series of novels. As one who has always been intrigued by the dark and disturbing, as a practitioner in the horror genre, a professional writer for almost two decades, and an illustrator for three, the real horror of history and the lessons to be learned from it are what I have drawn my interest lately.

Long ago, when I first learned of Jack the Ripper and the murders associated with the killer, I was, as most everyone is, intrigued by the endless speculation about who he might have been (I use male pronouns when referring to him merely because of the name Jack; although, we don’t know the gender of the Whitechapel Murderer). The more I read about the murders and the various theories, the less interested I was in the killer and the more intrigued I became with the environment in which the murders took place. As I learned more about Victorian London and how rapidly it changed due to the industrial revolution, the more interesting I found the lives of those who lived there at the time. Although I couldn’t learn much about the killer, I could gain some knowledge of the five female victims. Potentially, there are more than five, but those considered canonical victims are Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Coroner’s inquests were held to determine the cause of death for each of the women. The inquiries are essentially trials, with juries and witnesses to help make a determination about the manner of a victim’s demise. The verdict in each of the five cases was “Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.”

The words, actions, movements, and motivations of each of the women are most clearly known to history closest to the time of their deaths because of the testimony of the witnesses called during the inquests. In some cases, such as that of Elizabeth Stride, the last couple of hours were recounted in detail, and in other cases, such as that of Catherine Eddowes, we have a good idea what she did within several days of her death. The farther we go into the past away from the hour of their deaths, however, the less detailed and the more generalized is the information about them. Within the few years prior to their deaths, all five had suffered real hardship—all had engaged in prostitution to survive, most, if not all, had been active alcoholics, and most had spent time in the dehumanizing workhouse system.

In Victorian England, the Industrial revolution had led to large-scale unemployment, much the way the Tech Revolution has done in America today. Victorian London, much like large American cities today, suffered from overcrowding and large numbers of homeless.

We can see a modern reflection of the victims of Jack the Ripper in the homeless of twenty-first century America. Much of the cause of that homelessness went unseen in Victorian times, as it does now. With the rise in the numbers of the homeless, then as now, people had a tendency to shy away from the problem.

My natural inclination is to avoid knowing why so many people are hungry and without shelter. I want to look away, and I don’t want to look away. My experience is that many people are just as ambivalent. Many of the homeless are intoxicated much of the time or begging for the means to become intoxicated. I can easily become disgusted with the endless need of the addicts among the homeless. I could justify my righteousness by blaming their lack of hygiene, and their crimes of desperation. However, I am a sober alcoholic and expect myself to have compassion for them, even when it doesn’t come naturally. There, but for providence, go I.

Although I avoid those who are clearly intoxicated, on occasion I’ve asked someone begging on the street for their story. Most aren’t good at telling a story, perhaps because they are rarely asked to tell one. Even so, from what they say, I always get the sense that they have had happier times, that they have capabilities, and that they have aspirations involving their own personal interests and those whom they love.

Worse than the surface irritation of having to deal with a person who might be slovenly, dirty, inconvenient, or in-my-face is the emotional stress of considering the plight of an unfortunate person. My immediate response is to want look away. I speak of my experience to take responsibility for my reactions, but I’m not alone. We find it easy to scorn the beggars on the streets and then project that disdain on all homeless people, further isolating them. As a result, the down and out are less likely to find help when in danger. If they are seriously harmed or killed, fewer people step forward to try to find out what happened. Those who prey upon the homeless more easily get away with their crimes. The same was true for the down and out of Victorian London.

What events in the lives of the five Jack the Ripper victims led to their demise on the streets of London? How much of the way they lived was a result of the choices they made? What was beyond their control? Were they chosen at random by their killer, or did he choose them because he knew that fewer people would step forward to find out what happened to them? We don’t have good, solid answers to these questions.

My impression is that their choices had something to do with securing their wellbeing, but much of their existence was beyond their control. The environment of London itself was a danger. Literally hundreds of thousands of Londoners were killed by the pollution in the air, water, and food. New industries popped up everywhere to support the burgeoning population and to exploit the cheap labor market. Small factories occupied converted tenements or houses that once held families in residential neighborhoods. Sometimes, only a part of such a tenement or house was occupied by industry while the rest still functioned as a residence for individuals or families. With an increase in the use of chemistry, and with little knowledge of the damage many chemicals inflicted upon the bodies of those exposed to them, industries, such as match making, destroyed the lives of their workers and those living within close proximity to production. Those who suffered often did so without knowing why until it was too late. Matchmaking is only one example of the industrial poisoning of Londoners. Deadly chemicals were everywhere. They were used in medicines and in prepared foods as preservatives. Madness abounded, if not as a result of the emotional hardships of life, then from chemical damage to the brain.

A life of poverty in London was slowly killing all of the Ripper’s victims. Survival within that environment is the story that intrigues me. Those are lives I can relate to because I see parallels with life in my own time.

Regardless of whether the Ripper’s victims had few opportunities to live better lives or were responsible in large part for their predicaments, their legacy is pitiful and poignant. Not the cute horror of Halloween perhaps or the over-the-top-turned-almost-cartoon horror of slasher and zombie films, the stories of the five women are full of emotional content, conflict, and drama. What happened to the victims of Jack the Ripper is true horror, and in the telling of those tales we are reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

When I was growing up, my mother had a strange way of watching scary movies on television with the family; she’d stand in the hallway beside the living-room, peeking around the corner at the TV, ready to run away if the film became too scary. Is that the way we as a society treat true horror? We all love a fun scare, but when the suffering becomes too real, we want to run away because it is painful to witness. I suppose I’m saying that if fewer of us looked away, if we had the courage to see, there might be less actual horror in the world. So here’s to remaining in the living-room of life with our eyes wide open.

My Jack the Ripper Victim Series began with the novel, Of Thimble and Threat: The Life of a Ripper Victim, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, released in 2011. The second in the series, Say Anything But Your Prayers, about the life of Elizabeth Stride came out August of 2014. Although the novels are available separately in paperback, they also appear together in one ebook titled Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event. The third in the series, A Brutal Chill In August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, should be released late 2015.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Jack the Ripper Victim Series: The Double Event

TheDoubleEvent_PPandAudio_SmallThe volume, Jack the Ripper Victim Series: The Double Event, consisting of the two novels Say Anything But Your Prayers and Of Thimble and Threat is now available as an ebook and an audio book. Say Anything But Your Prayers is about the life of the third victim, Elizabeth Stride. Of Thimble and Threat is about the life of the fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes.

This post contains examples of illustrations from the two novels, the book trailer, links to articles and quizzes about the life and times of the two victims, and links to sellers of the ebook and audio book.

The Title of the Book—The night of September 30/ October 1, 1888, Jack the Ripper took two lives in the Whitechapel district of London. Elizabeth Stride was killed about 1:00 AM. A ten minute walk away, and less than an hour later, Catherine Eddowes was killed. The next day, a letter known as the Saucy Jacky postcard was received at the Central News Agency. The message was meant to taunt the police and perhaps the entire city. The writer, who signed the postcard Jack the Ripper, referred to the killings of the night before as “The Double Event.”

Since the murderer was never caught, fascination with the unsolved mystery has been widespread and enduring. But what of the women? Who were they? What was life like for them in London of the time period? What were their struggles, their hopes, their regrets? What of the decisions they made in life might have delivered them into the bloody hands of the Ripper? The two novels within this volume, Say Anything But Your Prayers, about the life of Elizabeth Stride, and Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, give possible answers to these questions.

Here are links to the book at some of the popular ebook sellers (also available elsewhere):

amazon.com (kindle)

Barnes and Noble

Smashwords

Here’s a link to the audio book edition, read by Alicia Rose.

Audible.com

While both of the novels in the book are available in paperback from Lazy Fascist Press, the only ebook available of Say Anything But Your Prayers is in the Double Event volume. The paperback of Say Anything But Your Prayers is illustrated as is the version in the ebook volume.  The paperback of Of Thimble and Threat is not illustrated, but the version in the ebook volume is. Here are a couple of the illustrations, the first from Say Anything But Your Prayers, and the second from Of Thimble and Threat. Click on the images to enlarge.

AllThatShedNeed_smallStillInItsHidingPlace_small Say Anything But Your Prayers (link to the paperback on amazon.com)
The beast of poverty and disease had stalked Elizabeth all her life, waiting for the right moment to take her down. To survive, she listened to the two extremes within herself–Bess, the innocent child of hope, and Liza, the cynical, hard-bitten opportunist. While Bess paints rosy pictures of what lies ahead and Liza warns of dangers everywhere, the beast, in the guise of a man offering something better, circles closer. Click here to visit

Of Thimble and Threat (link to the paperback on amazon.com)
The story of the intense love between a mother and a child, a story of poverty and loss, fierce independence, and unconquerable will. It is the devastating portrayal of a self-perpetuated descent into Hell, a lucid view into the darkest parts of the human heart.

Bringing  the Victims Back to Life—These are works of fiction, but they require extensive research to get the environment and characters right. For purposes of storytelling, I did not adhered strictly to the victims’ histories, yet followed as closely as I could and still write a successful tale. I have assigned to my main characters emotional characteristics and reactions that are consistent with their time and circumstances.  Wanting to see what the women looked like, and having only mortuary photos to consider, I worked on those old images in photoshop, trying to repair the damage to the womens’ features and breathe a bit of life into them. Below are the results of that effort. The images appear in the two volume ebook. The first is of Elizabeth Stride, and the second is of Catherine Eddowes. Click on the images to enlarge.

ElizabethStrideRevivedCatherineRevived

Look for the 3rd book in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series, A Brital Chill In August, in August of 2016.

Here are links to article’s I’ve written on Ripper related subjects on Saucy Jacky—A Ripper of a Site:

Alan M. Clark – Jack the Ripper, London’s Murder Weapon

Alan M. Clark – The Mysteries of Elizabeth Stride

Below are links to 2 quizzes I created on Goodreads for the book. Test your knowledge of the women who suffered at the hands of Jack the Ripper on the deadly night of Sept. 30/Oct. 1, 1888. The quizzes also have a few question about London of the period. Since the answers are based on history, one can score highly without having read the novels.

Goodreads Quiz
The Double Event Quiz 1
taken
2 times
10 questions

 

Goodreads Quiz

The Double Event Quiz 2
taken 2 times
10 questions

Watch the book trailer.

Of Thimble and Threat, by Alan M. Clark

Of Thimble and Threat  is a novel inspired by the life of Catherine Eddowes, a woman believed to be the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper.

I first became interested in the life of Catherine Eddowes after reading the police report about her murder, particularly the part that listed her articles of clothing and the possessions found on her person at the time of her death.  Here’s the list from the police report:

Clothing
• Black straw bonnet trimmed in green and black velvet with black beads. Black strings, worn tied to the head.
• Black cloth jacket trimmed around the collar and cuffs with imitation fur and around the pockets in black silk braid and fur. Large metal buttons.
• Dark green chintz skirt, 3 flounces, brown button on waistband. The skirt is patterned with Michaelmas daisies and golden lilies.
• Man’s white vest, matching buttons down front.
• Brown linsey bodice, black velvet collar with brown buttons down front
• Grey stuff petticoat with white waistband
• Very old green alpaca skirt (worn as undergarment)
• Very old ragged blue skirt with red flounces, light twill lining (worn as undergarment)
• White calico chemise
• No drawers or stays
• Pair of men’s lace up boots, mohair laces. Right boot repaired with red thread
• 1 piece of red gauze silk worn as a neckerchief
• 1 large white pocket handkerchief
• 1 large white cotton handkerchief with red and white bird’s eye border
• 2 unbleached calico pockets, tape strings
• 1 blue stripe bed ticking pocket
• Brown ribbed knee stockings, darned at the feet with white cotton

Possessions
• 2 small blue bags made of bed ticking
• 2 short black clay pipes
• 1 tin box containing tea
• 1 tin box containing sugar
• 1 tin matchbox, empty
• 12 pieces white rag, some slightly bloodstained
• 1 piece coarse linen, white
• 1 piece of blue and white shirting, 3 cornered
• 1 piece red flannel with pins and needles
• 6 pieces soap
• 1 small tooth comb
• 1 white handle table knife
• 1 metal teaspoon
• 1 red leather cigarette case with white metal fittings
• 1 ball hemp
• 1 piece of old white apron with repair
• Several buttons and a thimble
• Mustard tin containing two pawn tickets, One in the name of Emily Birrell, 52 White’s Row, dated August 31, 9d for a man’s flannel shirt. The other is in the name of Jane Kelly of 6 Dorset Street and dated September 28, 2S for a pair of men’s boots. Both addresses are false.
• Printed handbill and according to a press report- a printed card for ‘Frank Carter,305,Bethnal Green Road
• Portion of a pair of spectacles
• 1 red mitten

Catherine Eddowes had spent each of the two nights before the night of her death in a different casual ward.  The casual wards were part of the workhouse system, a place for the transient, the ill, or those known to be criminals to receive temporary shelter in what was considered at the time to be appalling conditions.  Like many of the homeless today, she was wearing many layers of clothing.  She carried over fifty personal items.  It is likely she had everything she owned on her person.

With a sense of what her time and circumstances were, I found this pitiful list more compelling than anything I’ve read about Jack the Ripper, and I had the idea of seeing in a work of fiction how all those possessions and clothing came to her.   Our possessions say a lot about who we are, and hers spoke to me about a hard-scrabble life and a desperation—not without hope—that made for good storytelling.

The story begins when she is thirteen years old and concludes at her tragic death at the hands of, what they might have called at the time, a fiend.  We don’t say fiend much anymore.  We don’t call the Green River Killer or BTK a fiend.  It just sounds weak in the light of what we know about them.  But that was strong language to describe a killer in Victorian London.  I use it here to make a point—if I was going to transport readers to that time and give them a reasonable taste of what her life was like, I’d have to get the atmospherics right.

I would not be inventing her life out of whole cloth (an old expression that fits the theme of the story well) since there was much information about Catherine Eddowes, but to build the world in which she lived, Victorian England, I would have to commit to extensive research.  The thought of it was so daunting, it took me over 15 years and finally a request by Cameron Pierce to write a novel for Lazy Fascist Press before I would seriously consider it.

Here are some interesting things I discovered about Catherine Eddowes:

• Her first common-law husband, a man named Conway, wrote gallows ballads and was a chapman.  Catherine worked at this business with him and most likely contributed to the writing of the ballads.  They made a living attending public executions where they sold their chapbooks for a penny apiece.  These were composed of several broad sheets folded together that included a ballad and other written material about the life, the crime and trial of the criminal being executed.  They did this at the execution of Catherine’s cousin, a murderer named Robinson.

• She went to the infirmary at the Work House to give birth to her children.

• While living with a man named Kelly, one of Catherine’s aliases was Mary Ann Kelly, an alias also used by the fifth victim of Jack the Ripper, Mary Jane Kelly.

• Two days before her murder, Catherine told friends she knew the murderer and would turn him in for the reward.

• The night of her murder, Catherine was arrested for public drunkenness and held in a cell where she slept for several hours.  When she awoke, she said she could take care of herself and begged to be released.  The police would not let her go without knowing her name.  She gave it as Mary Ann Kelly.  Within an hour of her release, she was found dead.

Here are some interesting slang expressions from Victorian London that I used in the novel:
• Cuttie or Nose Warmer—short pipe, mostly smoked by women.
• Billy—silk handkerchief.
• Bludger—violent criminal.
• Dollymop—amateur prostitute.
• Fakement—pretense for begging.
• Flag—an apron.
• Glock—half-wit.
• Gulpy—gullible, easily duped.
• Haybag—woman.
• Lump Hotel—Work House
• Lumper—dock worker.
• Lushington—a drunkard.
• Mumper—beggar
• Muck Snipe—someone “down and out”
• Patterer—someone who has hawks using a recited sales pitch.
• Prater—conman preacher.
• Rookery—slum.
• Square rigged—soberly dressed.

Here are some interesting things I discovered about Victorian London and British culture:
• London Particular—A mix of pollution and fog, sometimes called pea soup fog for its yellow color, resulting from the extensive use of coal during the industrial revolution in England.  The British government in recent years has admitted that the killer fog was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of its citizens.
• The Great Stink—A time in London, during the summer of 1858, when the amount of waste entering the Thames and hot weather combined to create a miasma so potent it nearly shut down the government and brought the city to a halt.  Those who could afford to do so evacuated the city.
Phosphorism—A disease that was common among matchmaker (those who labored in match factories).  Handling the chemicals used in the production of matches inflicted upon the laborer damage to the teeth and jaw, often resulting in the loss of some or all of the teeth and occasionally requiring the removal of the jaw bone.
• Godfrey’s Cordial—An opium and alcohol elixir used to keep toddles and infants quiet.
• Various Scavengers—Mudlarks (children who scavenge the river Thames, looking for anything of value), Toshers (those who scavenge in the sewers, often children), Bone Grubbers (those who collect bones to sell, either asking for them door to door or scavenging for them along the river).
• Night Soil Men—Those who muck out cesspits, the receptacles of human bodily waste in the basements of tenements and private homes.
• Pig Wash—Primarily the leftovers of a middle class to wealthy household, food that has been to the table too many times and has gone bad or is close to it.  The rejected food is given to those in service to the household who have requested and been granted Pig Wash.
• Broxy—the meat of diseased sheep—a cheap source of meat for the poor.
• All Sorts—a drink composed of all the drinks abandoned on tables at a pub, gathered up by the barman or barmaids, and mixed together—a cheap source of alcohol for the poor.

In writing Of Thimble and Threat, my effort was not to create a character we would relate to as one from our time, but one whose words and actions were shaped by her environment and circumstances and whose driving emotions were seen as reasonable within that context. Victorian England, with it’s social structure, polluted environment, the quality of sustenance for its people, labor conditions, the state of scientific and medical knowledge in that period, the prevalence and pervasiveness of disease and the seeming ease with which people became ill and slipped quickly into death, was a very different world from the one in which I live.  All these elements combined to create quite different priorities and concerns for the people of that time and place from what most of us experience today.  The average person was most likely much more aware of mortality day to day since something as simple as a cut on the finger could easily become infected and lead to death.  Choosing an occupation—if one were lucky enough to have a choice—was to choose between compromising one or another aspects of one’s health.

That’s not to say we don’t have these concerns today, but time and experience has led to systems which mitigate much of the extremes seen in Victorian London.  Human beings haven’t truly changed—we experience the same emotions we always have.  The stimulus for those emotions is what changes from environment to environment, generation to generation.  We would certainly relate to those of another time, but having a conversation with someone from the 1800s would be an interesting and singular experience for someone today.

The possessions of Catherine Eddowes started that conversation with me, providing a glimpse of her priorities and concerns, and Of Thimble and Threat is my response.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon